I have a complicated relationship with the color red, which is why, perhaps, that I feel like I should write about it. My favorite color is actually gray, which is weird, people tell me. “You are an artist. Out of all the colors there are in the world, why gray?” they say. They protest until I elaborate that my favorite is actually a particular type of gray, rich and full, tinted with mossy green and slate blue. “Fine,” they huff, still not satisfied. I grew up in Portland, so perhaps it was inevitable. We Portlanders are the Eskimos of gray; we have a thousand words for its thousand nuances. Or perhaps it is something like my mother, who cannot paint a room any hue beyond an off white, for fear that it will be too extreme. Grey is not extreme, it is neutral, it is calm, it is a wide open door for light or dark. Red is none of those things. It screams its monosyllabic name faster than I can even type it.
It is not that I don’t like the color. I do. I love the deep burgundy of raspberry stained hands and the bright scarlet of crushed tomatoes simmering in the pot, the russets of November leaves and the almost orange of my father’s earthenware. But it is just so red. It refuses to be dulled or diluted. Whenever I paint with red it seems to escape my brush and two days later I find it clotted in my hair, fingerprinted on the wall, an impossible smear on something I swear I never even touched.
My first memory of red was a visit to the doctor. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I remember the clinical pale blue of the walls and the dry crunch of the paper beneath me on the table. Then came the prick of the needle, the sudden pain and the surprising flow of red. It was a blood test, I’m not sure what for, but I was terrified. The sharp pain of the needle, that red that had never been there before, somehow mixed up in my mind, and it was the red that ended up sticking with me. It was the same red I would later see when my sister ran into the door and split her forehead. Such a small cut, not even stitches needed, but so much red. I thought she might die. I have never had a fondness for needles, but it is the drawing of blood rather than piercing of the skin that has always been the more unsettling experience for me.
It is so strange to think that such a wild untamable color should be flowing so liberally through us just underneath the skin, a network of rivers through our arms and legs. Strange too, to think of all the wild and conflicting connotations of the color: the roar of anger and the tenderness, or violent passion, of love, the flushing of cheeks and the roguing of lips. Red cars are fast and red lights scream stop. The hue used to be made by the squashing of thousands of little insects, a color literally born of death.
I remember the first time I saw red earth. I was twelve, and we were on our way through the deserts of southern Utah on our way to a family reunion in southwestern Colorado. Our dark green seven passenger van had just rolled through miles and miles of ochres and grays and browns and greens, a landscape remarkable for its unremarkable-ness, and then suddenly everything was red. We had arrived on the surface of Mars. The rocks were strange, smooth and rounded, and they stood up like giants frozen in place, or bent over themselves, and they opened into chasms that fell further and further way in the red landscape. This was the land of my mother’s people. My great grandmother still lived in the town where she had lived all her life, a tiny gathering of houses, a church, and a grocery store, whose name I always found humorously fitting: Blanding. My mother’s face lit up as childhood memories of summer visits, of Anasazi ruins, of dinosaurs, of canyons and mesa tops became again real in her eyes. She remembered, and strange as it sounds I remembered too. Or at least something in me remembered. It is something I have noted every time I have passed through that landscape again. It feels so foreign, but at the same time so familiar.
I visited Blanding six months ago, once again driving through, once again feeling the haunting cry of a home I’ve never lived in. My great grandmother had died the previous week and I wanted to visit her grave before we proceeded south on those empty desert roads. It was not hard to find, the town being so small, and each family occupying their own corner of the unassuming fenced cemetery, the map a laminated paper weighted down by a lump of sandstone. Her’s was freshly dug; surrounded by the almost unnaturally green grass there was a rectangle of red dirt. Again I thought of the rivers that flow through us, the iron in our blood and the iron in the earth, and how the red of my grandmother’s rivers was now still, and how now she was surrounded by the same red earth where she had lived and loved, where she had cried and bled and worked and sang and danced I am sure, and had a daughter who had a daughter who had me and how I am in that earth that is in me and that she is now becoming a part of.
I have a complicated relationship with the color red.